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How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought Hardcover – September 11, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Honorable Mention for the 2011 PROSE Award in Theology & Religious Studies, Association of American Publishers

"As Batnitzky points out, Judaism doesn't fit any modern mold especially well. Her book adds both shrewdness and humility to the search for modern Jewish identity and the claims often made about the purity of these identities."--Edward Ruehle, Jewish Voice and Herald

"Superb and thought-provoking."--Adam Kirsch, Tablet Magazine

"An excellent introduction to the key philosophers and writers who influenced modern Jewish thought."--Wallace Greene, Jewish Book World

"It has been decades since a broad, synthetic volume addressing the major issues and thinkers in modern Jewish thought has been published. How Judaism Became a Religion fills a lacuna in the field, and this book will no doubt serve as the authoritative secondary source on the topic for some time. Leora Batnitzky offers an eminently readable overview of a large number of complicated, even esoteric thinkers in terms that are manageable, indeed inviting, for nonspecialists and lay readers alike. (Helpfully, she also offers such readers a well-chosen list of suggested readings at the end of each chapter.) In doing so, she renders an invaluable service to the field."--Mara Benjamin, H-Net Reviews

"Leora Batnitzky's How Judaism Became a Religion is a bold new interpretation of modern Jewish thought by one of the leading scholars in the field."--Micah Gottlieb, Jewish Review of Books

"Batnitzky devotes her book to differentiating the array of responses to the modern notion of Judaism as a sheer religion. She presents meticulously the disparate positions of figures as varied as Moses Mendelssohn, Abraham Geigel, Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Kook and his son, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha'am, Emil Fackenheim and Mordecai Kaplan. She also presents the altogether 'premodern' views of Eastern European Jews such as the Hasidim. She shows that even resolute Reform Jews such as Geiger failed to work out a clean separation between politics and religion. With the Holocaust and with the founding of Israel, any divide seemed refuted by history."--Robert A. Segal, Times Higher Education Supplement

"This book is lucidly written and can be read by the scholar and general interested reader alike."--David Tesler, Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews

"In [How Judaism Became a Religion], Batnitzky provides a useful introductory map of this diverse, centuries-long story. In nine brief chapters, she explains the different responses Jews have made to the challenges of modernity and where each choice leads vis-à-vis both the people of Israel and the individual Jew. The simple design of the book provides an overview of the whole complex issue that will help beginners grasp the essential details. Libraries serving Judaica and religion collections will want to purchase this volume."--Choice

"The book uses the combined rubric of religion, nation, and culture as the key to understanding the past two centuries of Jewish thought. This sweeping construct illuminates scholars and their debates, revealing ironies that have heretofore gone largely unnoticed."--Lawrence Grossman, Jewish Ideas Daily

"What historical analysis cannot tell us, however, is whether the truth about the Jews is found in the more or the less traditional versions of Judaism, in the more communal or the more individualistic thinking, or in the religious or in the secular understandings of Jewishness. To answer that question, one must step outside the constraints of historical description and venture into the world of constructive thought. For anyone who wishes to understand the history of the question and the answers that have already been proposed, Leora Batnitzky's stimulating book is an excellent place to start."--Jon D. Levenson, Commonweal

"Leora Batnitzky's How Judaism became a Religion is an enlightening text, orderly, insightful and quite cogent. . . . Batnitzky's main thesis is deceptively simple and is presented with enviable lucidity and transparency."--S. Parvez Manzoor, Muslim World Book Review

"More than an introduction, How Judaism Became a Religion presents a compelling new perspective on the history of modern Jewish thought."--World Book Industry

"The book does a good job in bringing the subject closer to beginners in this field. . . . Future research . . . will take its starting point from this book, and further engagement on the ideas expounded here will certainly sharpen our assessment of each of these thinkers."--Sebastian Musch, Journal of Religion in Europe

"[H]er book is an undoubted success: in a manner both fascinating and potentially controversial, it broadens the scope of what is defined as 'thought' by including literary and political figures, rabbis, and academic scholars in the conversation."--Hanoch Ben-Pazi, Studies in Contemporary Jewry

"Batnitzky deserves our thanks for undertaking this project--a comprehensive philosophical examination that is guided as well by historical and biographical thinking. A careful reading of How Judaism Became a Religion invites the reader into the world of Jewish thought in the modern world, in which the spirit of creativity and activism are manifestly evident."--Hanoch Ben-Pazi, Studies in Contemporary Jewry

From the Back Cover

"Modernity and emancipation challenged the religious, political, legal, and cultural wholeness of diasporic Jewry--and seemed to require Jews to choose whether they were members of a religion, or a nation, or a culture, or a civilization. Leora Batnitzky provides a fascinating and illuminating account of the resulting debates and of those who defended the different options. Since the choice is still open, this is a necessary book."--Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study

"Leora Batnitzky's wonderful overview of modern Jewish thought is also strikingly novel. She shows that modern Jewish philosophy and culture are always responses to a single question: Is it desirable--or even possible--to make Judaism the religion it had never been before? This book is an outstanding achievement that will consolidate Batnitzky's reputation as the most incisive and remarkable scholar of modern Jewish thought of our time."--Samuel Moyn, Columbia University

"How Judaism Became a Religion takes a highly original approach to the whole field of modern Jewish thought, presenting it in a new and fascinating light. This book will interest scholars of Judaism and modern religious thought, but it is also an excellent introduction to modern Jewish thought for nonspecialists."--David Novak, University of Toronto


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691130728
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691130729
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,524,780 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By William Garrison Jr. VINE VOICE on January 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought" by Leora Batnitzky (Sept. 2011). Some comments abridged from an Adam Kirsch review in the 15 Dec 2011 TABLET online magazine: "...superb and thought-provoking new book...(the author) explains that modern definitions of Jewishness are inescapably divided and partial.... But if Jewishness was no longer an all-encompassing identity, no longer the name of a world, what could it be? Batnitzky's answer is given in her title. Judaism became a religion, she argues, when it stopped being a civic and political identity. Religion was the name of the shrunken sphere of life that Jewishness was allowed to occupy in the modern world. In particular, Batnitzky argues, German Jews began to think about Judaism in terms borrowed from Protestantism, as a private faith whose most important dimensions were emotional and ethical. The problem, of course, is that this understanding of religion manifestly clashes with rabbinic Judaism as it had evolved over the centuries. ... The first four chapters of How Judaism Became a Religion are devoted to the ways major German Jewish thinkers tried--and, in Batnitzky's view, largely failed--to answer that question..... In the following chapters, Batnitzky takes up the efforts of later Jewish thinkers to square this circle. Abraham Geiger, the founder of the Reform movement, would double down on the idea of Judaism as a "religion," a private ethical creed, and would jettison almost all of traditional Jewish practice. In response, Samson Raphael Hirsch would insist on the continuing urgency of Jewish law--"To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is the sum total of our task in life"--and thereby found the Orthodox movement.Read more ›
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This is one of the best books I've ever read about modern Jewish thought. Focusing on how the concept of "religion" developed alongside the modern European nation-state and the political emancipation of the Jews, she journeys through the writings of important, and frequently unexpected, Jewish thinkers. Batnitzky is a cartographer of Jewish thought, charting the logical geography of ideas, where they reside, how they are located compared to other ideas, and so on. The book is aimed at scholars and students but anyone interested in the subject will find the book consistently intellectually provocative, sparking new ideas and reminding us that Jewish thought is extraordinarily exciting.
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This is a nice, brisk overview of the various ways that Jewish thinkers have responded to the challenge of modernity — by limiting Judaism to a religion, either Orthodox, Conservative or Reform; by focusing on culture, as did Yiddish writers; by focusing on spirituality (Hasidism and neo-Hasidism); by turning to religious Zionism, and so on. Written by an academic, this book can be a bit dry at times. But at least the author has a sense of humor about it; she writes at one point, "One would be hard pressed to find anything funny or entertaining in German Jewish thought (and the reader is welcome to reread the first four chapters of part I of this book to double-check)."
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This book is a tale of two stories about Judaism. Before the 18th-century Enlightenment, many European Jews lived in self-governing communities. Disputes between Jews were adjudicated by Jewish courts, who could punish Jews for violations of Jewish law (both ritual and ethical).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as feudalism died, states began to monopolize the use of force. This left Jews with a question: if Judaism is no longer an all-encompassing religious/political system, what is it?

The leading German thinkers (including both Orthodox Jews like Samson Raphael Hirsch and more liberal Jews such as Franz Rosensweig) saw Judaism as primarily a religion: that is, as a dimension of life that is noncoercive, separate from politics, and totally compatible with life in a modern nation-state. She notes that many of these thinkers actually rejected the word "religion" in describing Judaism- but nevertheless, by the author's defintion they surely saw Judaism that way.

By contrast, Eastern European thinkers tended to see Judaism as more of a culture than a religion- a set of folkways independent of religious belief. Zionists saw Jews as not just a culture within a nation but as a nation itself, a nation that needed a homeland. Why the difference? In Western Europe, Jews were just integrated enough into the local culture that they could see themselves becoming part of it without sacrificing their religious beliefs. By contrast, in Eastern Europe Jews were more likely to see themselves as strangers in a strange land, at least partially because these nations were less likely (at least before 1933) to grant Jews political freedoms.

And today, the most isolationist wing of orthodoxy has come full circle, trying to create self-sufficient Orthodox societies where Jewish courts address most disputes.
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Excellent volume. Grapples with major thinkers and theories effectively and argues clearly its point. Other scholars have begun using it and developing therefrom and is thus, merely as such, worthwhile, but is also worthy, for sure, on its own.
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